There are too many sources of information to keep straight. Information is overwhelming because it is useless without application. The human brain struggles to process information without context and application. This is why it’s so difficult to keep everything straight. Herbert Simon coined the phrase “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” In an information rich world, attention holds the power. The attention given dictates the importance.
Complicating things further, time is scarce. Time can not be re-spent and you have no idea how much you have left. This complication drives you toward feeling good. We all can comprehend time’s scarcity so we focus our attention on what brings us pleasure because our brain is programed that way. There are a neuromodulators that affect how the neurons in your brain interact. A neuromodulator is a messenger released from a neuron in the central nervous system, or in the periphery, that affects groups of neurons, or effector cells that have the appropriate receptors. Dopamine is an example of a neuromodulator responsible for reward, motivation, pleasure, and fine motor function. It is released when you pick up your smart phone to check a new text message, the feed of your instagram, or scroll through facebook. Dopamine is a predictor of future rewards, driving your decision making and what to give attention to. When presented with information, your time and attention is in scarcity and your brain pre-programed for sabotage.
Walter Pauk; changing lives and taking notes
Walter Pauk is Cornell University’s reading and study center director. There is isn’t a lot of information about Walter but we do know he has focused his work on exploring the way we learn. Walter Pauk created the Cornell Note-taking System in the 1940s. This system three aspects to it. Divide the paper down the left hand side, creating a cue-column and a note-taking column.
Before you draw that line all the way down the paper, there is a another section. The summary section takes up the bottom part of the page. The Cue-column and Summary section are used after you’ve ingested information and taken your notes. This is what makes this method interesting, it uses your brain’s natural learning mechanisms to drive cognition. The method requires a behavior that gives 80% of the reward with 20% of the effort. It’s also a behavior we don’t take the time to do because it’s hard work.
Recall and chunking
Imagine all the information you take in are puzzle pieces. When you go to start the puzzle, all the pieces have the potential to connect to one another, but you have to find what goes where to create little chunks. This is how your brain arranges information. Chunking is the process your brain uses to bind pieces of information together into a meaningful whole. You build chunks as a bottom-up learning method, combining the big picture (like the one on the outside of the box) with the combined pieces of information.
Recall is how your brain starts to solidify the chunks you put together and combine it to make the big picture. The mental retrieval of the key ideas enhances deep learning and builds neural pathways. This is why note taking and highlighting text can be misleading. There is the illusion of competence; when you understand a concept at first glance but have yet to learn it. Only once the information has been chunked and the pathways engrained can your brain provide any value in pattern recognition or creative thought. The summary section of the Cornell notes had it right. Taking a little time to recall and summarize helps your brain solidify the material.
Train your brain to process information faster
Here are the steps to process information faster and lay the foundation for ownership over the material. This will help you go from meeting to meeting, retaining what is essential. Once you are able to own the information and dictate the proper attention, you’ll actually spend less time going back through notes. You will be free to think strategically and creatively.
1) Take 2 minutes to write a quick summary
This practice is simple yet difficult. You must actually take the time to write out your summary after the action. No dopamine will be released so you won’t have a natural desire to do this. Push through.
2) Connect your summary to the bigger picture
One you have your summary, focus your thinking about how this aligns to the bigger picture. The bigger picture is relative based on the scope of focus and information you are refining. You may want to think about how it fits within the project or how it aligns to your overall purpose.
3) Step away and let your brain work
Your brain needs time away to connect patterns that are loosely related. You’ve done the hard work, not let your brain work subconsciously to create mental leaps that unite the information.
By following these 3 simple steps, you will change the way you think. Starting this habit will be tough but the benefit you will receive from this practice will give you the reward to make it stick. Develop the discipline to think strategically and you’ll actually have more time; and we could all use a little more time.